What Makes Baby Ketten Karaoke Such an Enduring Force in Portland?

Standby tunes are forbidden at what the New York Times has called “America’s greatest karaoke night.”

By Casey Jarman July 12, 2016 Published in the August 2016 issue of Portland Monthly

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It feels weird going to karaoke by myself on a Tuesday night, let alone arriving early, but John Brophy reassures me. “A lot of people come alone, and then they meet people,” says the 40-year-old KJ, untangling a cable behind his sound board in the corner of Mississippi Pizza’s fully lit second room.

I notice a balding, middle-aged man flipping through a Baby Ketten Karaoke songbook that’s slightly slimmer than the others. The songs featured in this volume are “rareties,” most of their backing tracks either commissioned by Brophy with a group of like-minded friends or recorded himself in his own home studio. Here you can find Silver Jews, GG Allin, and at least 21 songs by Portland’s Decemberists. You will not, however, find “Don’t Stop Believin’” in any of Baby Ketten’s songbooks. Along with more than 100 other karaoke standbys, it’s forbidden at what the New York Times has called “America’s greatest karaoke night.”

Around 10 p.m., revelers start trickling in, many of them greeting Brophy with hugs or high-fives. Before long, the room is packed. Four stylish women hover near me, looking for an open table. I tell them they can take mine, but they insist we all sit together, imploring me to “sing something we can dance to.”

In the tiny back-room bar, while election results from the Oregon primary roll in on the local news, Brophy takes a break to inhale some tacos. He’s been running this night here every week for six years, and currently has a similar event at Alberta Street Pub on Mondays, among others around town. Some sister Baby Ketten nights have also spun off in Seattle. I ask Brophy if it ever gets old. He says no. “It’s the best job in the world,” he says. “Why would I want to do anything else?”

After a five-song “Radiohead rock block,” aided by a fog machine, every-one sings “Happy Birthday” to a girl named Casey. It sounds glorious. I finally hand Brophy a slip of paper and a dollar. “Oh my god, I love that song,” he says giddily. “I recorded it myself. The backing vocals were so hard.”

The fog machine sputters out when I take the stage. My new friends let out a little cheer. The horns blast. “They call me Doctor Worm,” I sing, finding my key. “Good morning, how are you, I’m Doctor Worm.”

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